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    Good Life, Good Death

    No one knows exactly when, but as the old song says,
    everybody’s gotta go sometime. Indeed, 155,000 people die on the
    planet every day — from famine, illness, violence, war, neglect,
    accidents, bad judgment, and old age. While death is a voyage that
    awaits us all, not everyone gets the same noisy sendoff when they
    depart. Compare the frenzy earlier this year around the demise of
    the pope and Terri Schiavo with Americans’ relative ignorance of
    the rising body count in Iraq. The fact is that we live in an era
    simultaneously obsessed with death and in denial about it — a
    paradox that affects us all. We hope this section will give readers
    a chance to think about how to balance the fear of dying with its
    power to make us better at the art of living. — The

    Hello, Laine?’ my doctor’s voice sang out cheerily from the
    answering machine, ‘Your test results came back today and it looks
    like you have a growth on your pancreas. Give a call if you have
    any questions. Hope you have a great afternoon!’

    Did I have questions? Since pancreatic cancer is medical jargon
    for ‘goner,’ I had several: What kind of growth? What would happen
    next? And how could I have a possibly fatal diagnosis? Dying, after
    all, is for the bit players in our tightly scripted lives. You and
    I, dear reader, the stars of the romantic comedies airing nightly
    in our imaginations, will never die.

    On one level we know that isn’t true, of course. Humans are
    gifted with the ability to contemplate their own demise, and this
    weird blessing infuses every moment of life with the inevitability
    of death. That said, we’re remarkably good at making our date with
    death seem so far away we doubt we’ll have to keep it. If an event
    pierces our defenses and makes our mortality vivid, we quickly
    return to living as we usually live, as if the odds against death
    are stacked in our favor.

    To deny death, for all its initial comfort (unless you’re a
    Russian novelist), is to deny an essential part of life. Throughout
    the ages, students of the human condition have suggested that
    reconciling ourselves to death can open a window into our deepest
    nature, and only by accepting death will we lead a truly fulfilling
    life. And what happens if we don’t? The answer to that question
    could have special importance in an age of terror attacks and
    preemptive war — the cultural equivalents of bad news from the

    At 29, I’ve had my shot at wrestling with these issues. My
    parents gifted me with a genetic disorder that, according to the
    medical elite (except my optimistic acupuncturist), will take me
    down short of the normal span. I co-parented a beloved boxer dog
    who, within a week of being asked to write this piece (as if on
    some cosmic cue), died of a massive heart attack in his apparent
    prime. My father also died too young. By the end, holding his
    purple hand, I could see tumors rising up beneath his skin, an
    image that brings to mind what Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi reportedly
    said about his terminal cancer: ‘Well, it wants to live, too.’

    Most people aren’t so calm in the face of ‘mortality salience’
    — modern science-speak for the moments when we realize death
    awaits us. According to studies, pointed reminders of death are
    more likely to trigger unsavory behaviors, including a puritanical
    conformism that drives us to defend our worldview and to punish
    others who threaten it — if only in our minds. Curiously, an
    awareness of death also drives us to seek out ways to bolster our
    self-esteem. Researchers say that even little ways of feeling
    better about ourselves (like flattery or shopping) are strangely
    effective in lulling us back into forgetting our ultimate fate.

    Some say our efforts to manage the terror of death can be used
    to explain a range of human activity, from the rise of culture and
    religion to American patriotic fervor after the attacks on 9/11. As
    noted by Kate Douglas in New Scientist magazine (Aug 28,
    2004), not all researchers buy what is known as ‘terror management
    theory,’ or TMT, ‘but nobody doubts that we do react in interesting
    ways when confronted with death.’

    Long before Western science got interested, mystics and sages
    have sought to live well with our mortality, tapping its potential
    to liberate our better traits while sidestepping its equally potent
    ability to turn us into rigid creeps. From death anxiety and its
    contradictions, ‘the most sublime, creative, and spiritually
    uplifting aspects of our nature emerge,’ says Daniel Liechty, a
    theology and peace studies scholar and a professor of social work
    at Illinois State University, quoted in Science &
    (March/April 2005). But that’s also from where ‘the
    most primitively reactive, paranoid, and violent aspects of our
    nature emerge.’ The Zen master’s equanimity with his fatal disease
    springs from a centuries-old discipline of clear-eyed gazing at the
    frightened self’s response to its annihilation. And Zen is only one
    of many traditions, religious and secular, that have sought to
    teach us how to deal with death.

    As the tragic cycle of violence that began with 9/11 enters its
    fifth year, that event has come to be seen as an entire era’s
    near-death experience. Many would say the result is a world
    hardened into absolutism, where myopic foreign policy is de
    rigueur. Instead of encouraging creativity and enlightenment, the
    fear of death, amplified by the modern media, creates panic as well
    as political leaders who garner power by promising the kind of
    psychic safety that only rigid ideology can provide. In other
    words, we’re watching the paradox of death awareness play out on a
    global scale.

    My doctor, it turns out, is prone to hyperbole: the polyp was on
    my gall bladder, not my pancreas, and it appears benign. With the
    happy news of my new lease on life, I quickly forgot my medical
    scare and returned to the comforting distractions of life.

    To deny death, some fall back on righteousness, some busy
    themselves with crucial tasks only the living can do, like trimming
    cuticles or alphabetizing the condiments in the pantry. A rare few
    reach peace with death and remain unconcerned by the ego’s final

    I’m not one of those people. Life has served me up a lot of loss
    — from beloved creatures already gone, to dear friends about to
    go, to the terrifying thought we all share that today will be the
    day we get paved over by an errant city bus, and all our chances to
    eat Oreos, and play with our chocolate Labs, and watch inane TV,
    and be madly in love, and be intellectually challenged, and be
    free, and alive, and beautiful, will be gone. I have no idea what
    to do with this odd knowledge. Any prescription I might offer would
    be someone else’s.

    Death is like an unmapped land — a place our minds can’t fully
    comprehend, but on the perimeters of which we are summoned to both
    new spiritual depths and sheer terror. Maybe our only call, both
    for ourselves and for our culture in denial, is to acknowledge this
    strange tension and learn to live with it. As others have noted,
    intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at
    one time. Perhaps living an honest life means having the ability to
    do the same with death.

    Laine Bergeson is assistant editor at Utne.

    Published on Sep 1, 2005


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